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Buying British

We’ve been in Leicester this week, visiting some of our UK suppliers, and, having spent much of my career buying in Turkey, Eastern Europe and the Far East, it has been a real eye opener! Within the space of a few square miles around this small city is a thriving garment manufacturing industry, largely supplied by local fabric suppliers and converters. I had no idea that we were actually still knitting, dyeing, finishing and printing so much fabric here in the UK.

We met with a variety of our existing manufacturer’s, who supply jersey tops and leggings, knitwear, dresses and other soft wovens. Many of these have been supplying for years, but are seeing growth in their businesses as buyers across the British retail industry strive to reduce risk by buying smaller quantities, closer to the season, trading back into best sellers, enabling them to drive up sales, in what is currently a very tough retail climate. There are pro’s and cons to this approach – it obviously has an impact on the intake margin percentage, as manufacturing here in the UK will never be the cheapest option, but the cash profit that can be generated in this way, can be greater, and the markdown required at the end of the season reduced.

Rising prices across the world are also contributing to the increase in local manufacturing here in the UK – rising labour costs in China and Bangladesh, tighter rules and regulations in both India and China surrounding the treatment of waste water (leading to cost increases as suppliers have to build or use facilities with water treatment plants so as not to discharge dirty water into  the environment), rising fuel costs leading to increases in the cost of freight.

It is becoming more and more difficult to negotiate low enough cost prices to justify buying on such long lead times, and as a result, the gap between the prices that can be achieved here and those overseas, is shrinking. For any fashion business, which relies on having the most wanted product as quickly as possible, the UK is a very attractive prospect, and the profit that can be generated is better than you  might expect.

There are obviously limitations to the types of product that can be bought here – items with a large number of manual processes involved in production, such as denim, or those which have a lot of Far Eastern components/trims, such as outerwear, are always going to be very expensive to make in the UK. There is definitely a need for a multi product, high street fashion business, to have a balanced supply base incorporating both local and overseas sources, in order to manage profit and speed to market.

Having made this visit, we will definitely be going back on a more regular basis, to make the most of the 3-6 week lead times! I have been impressed with the standards of the manufacturing facilities I have seen and the quality of the product produced. It’s great to know that there is so much creative product development going on here in the UK, and suppliers are investing in new machinery and taking on additional staff, in particular, designers, to improve their level of service and production capacity.

I think we have only just started scratching the surface, but I am very excited about the possibilities for clothing production here in the UK. With a little help from the government, and the support of the British retail industry, it feels like the right time for a revival of clothing “made in the UK”!

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